There are currently three main remedies for outbreaks of the herpes simplex virus, or cold sore, available over the counter: the lotion, the protective patch, and the “invisible light treatment machine”. Whatever their relative merits as palliative treatments, what allows three so different products to simultaneously claim to achieve the same thing is the radically different rhetorical – and we can say ideological – strategies they employ. As Roland Barthes puts it in his classic 1957 discussion of different brands of washing powder, “the relations between the evil and the cure, between dirt and a given product, are very different in each case”.
The rhetorical claim of the lotion, first, is that it assimilates the troubling difference of the cold sore’s arrival into the body’s ordinary running. We use lotions every day, and are used to thinking that different parts of our bodies – hands, face, lips, eyes, hair, feet – require different kinds of lotion to keep them at their best: why shouldn’t the same easygoing relativism be extended to, this, the body’s newest arrival? “From a tingle to a blister” is the advertising slogan of the market standard producer of cold sore lotion, which goes as far as to attribute to the cold sore its own narrative, independent of the body it has taken as its host. Ideologically, then, the lotion is a multiculturalist liberal, happy to play down tensions between the body’s communities, and to acknowledge that the “other” may have a story of its own to tell. But also in keeping with that ideology, the cold sore “other” can only be integrated in this way if it abandons its most characteristic cultural properties. The lotion’s habitual language of “cooling” and “reducing redness” demonstrates its double gesture: the cost to the cold sore of being blithely welcomed into the body’s daily beauty routine is the demand that it be subsumed into the homogeneity of that body.
The protective patch seems to employ the opposite gesture. Far from integrating the cold sore into daily life, sealing it with a transparent sticker suggests a compulsion to cover it over, pretend it never existed, to slowly suffocate it. In this treatment, contagion is the main factor, and the attempt at sealing it off works to delimit its spreading to other part’s of one’s body and to those of others. But the heavy-handed literalness of this rhetorical cure only barely disguises its logical contradiction. For the dangerous “other” being contained is being contained inside one’s own body. The protective patch’s knee-jerk nationalist impulse to close all borders and “send them back” comes with the resigned acknowledgement that pure national belonging is always only a fantasy, and that there are shards of the alienated immigrant within all of us.
If these two conventional cold sore remedies portray the relationship between the supposed interloper and the body proper in ways roughly analogous to the two mainstream positions on immigration in the West, then where do we situate the innovative third available treatment: the “invisible light treatment machine”? The machine works by sending a concentrated beam of invisible light into the affected area, supposedly stimulating the body’s immune system, and so destroying the cold sore. We should not ignore the apparently ludicrous analogy of the conclusion of the first Star Wars film, where the malignant globular Death Star explodes after a single laser is fired into its core. (The sci-fi loopiness of the product is inscribed in its clunky B-Movie name). Nor indeed the political capital Ronald Reagan – the figure most often evoked by today’s neoconservative hawks – took from the franchise in his own escalation of America’s military scope. For the “invisible light treatment machine” actively plays out the hawkish fantasy only nervously implied by the other two: that of complete and technologized obliteration of the other, and an abrasive indifference to the possibility that the other is part of oneself.